Maryland polarized politically, but still dominated by Democrats, new book says

By Len Lazarick

Maryland has become increasingly polarized politically over the past two decades, but it will likely stay dominated by Democrats as it has been since the 19th century, although today’s Democrats bear little resemblance to those a century ago.

Book cover: Maryland Politics and GovernmentThat’s among the broad conclusions of a new book on the state’s political past, present and future by two local professors, who have also played an active hand in many election campaigns – mostly on the Democratic side.

The book is called simply “Maryland Politics and Government” with the subtitle “Democratic Dominance.” It was written by Herbert Smith, long-time political science professor at McDaniel College, and John Willis, director of the government and public policy program at the University of Baltimore.

Published by the University of Nebraska Press as the 28th in a series on the politics of individual states, the book has been in the works for longer than a decade. (It’s cheaper and ships free on, where you can also read the preface, first chapter, end notes and index.)

The story needed telling

Willis said they wrote the book “because it needed to be done.”

“It’s a story that really needed to be told,” Smith agreed.

The story is of a state of continuing ethnic and political diversity – having the largest population of free black people in any state before the Civil War, for instance — but one where the political institutions, such as the state constitution, have long historical continuities. The Democrats today are far more liberal and progressive than a century ago when they were racist conservatives, but are still in control through many of the same institutions.

It is not exactly a textbook – although it is clearly structured for academic use – but is the kind of book political junkies and reporters would want to have on their reference shelf. It contains fact-checked political high points of the last 50 years or so, and has the numbers to back up its analysis.

A remarkable sense of consistency

Willis, a Harvard Law School graduate and the numbers guy, was political advisor to Parris Glendening as he ran for governor. He was then Glendening’s secretary of state, where he was one of the architects of the 2002 gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts. “Parris and I actually started out talking about this [book],” in the 1980s, when Glendening was still teaching political science at the University of Maryland College Park, Willis said.

“There’s a remarkable sense of consistency” in Maryland, said Willis, born and bred here. “Our character hasn’t always changed that much.”

Herb Smith, left, and John Willis.

Herb Smith, left, and John Willis. By On the Hill media

Smith came to Maryland to get his doctorate at Johns Hopkins and “just fell in love with the state.” He authored much of the chapter on Maryland political history, which is at 32 pages one of the longest chapters in the book. (It is also the one that had to be cut the most to get the book down to 319 pages, not counting the extensive end notes and index.)

“We saved the country not once but twice,” Smith said. Maryland first saved Washington’s army from defeat in the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War. Thirty-eight years later, at the Battle of North Point in Baltimore County and Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, Maryland did it again by keeping the British from taking a key city after sacking Washington.

Bookends at the State House

The book begins, in a chapter you can read on, with a charming description that visually depicts Maryland’s contrasts and contradictions.

“In Annapolis, they stand like bronze bookends with the Maryland Capitol Buildings between them. Both native Marylanders, both U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and the similarities end there. From a marble chair a robed statue of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney gazes down the historic capitol lawn,” toward the city dock where slaves were once traded. “Taney’s counterpart stands young and vital amid a group sculpture of African-American students on the opposite side of the capital.” Baltimore-born Thurgood Marshall, is depicted as a young man and chief counsel to the NAACP at the time of historic 1954 Supreme Court decision overturning segregated schools.

Taney was the author of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision holding black slaves had no rights, and Marshall became the first African American to sit on the court.

Focus on the governor

The authors give due emphasis and new insights on the legislature and the judiciary. But not surprisingly in a book on Maryland government, Smith and Willis are preoccupied with the governors, among the most powerful in the nation.

They spell out how and why a very weak executive rotated every year in the early 19th century evolved into the powerful 20th century master of the budget who could appoint 6,000 people in government, including all the judges, and even — as we’ve seen this year — has the strong upper hand on congressional and legislative redistricting.

Their depiction of the last 10 years is where Republicans and conservatives might have the most quarrels, beginning with the chapter subtitles: Robert Ehrlich, “The Republican Opportunist” and Martin O’Malley, “The Twenty-First Century Pragmocrat.”

In the view of Willis and Smith, Ehrlich ran as a moderate unifier against a divided Democratic Party. He tried to govern as a confrontational conservative against a unified Democratic leadership team, a stance he had picked up as a congressman. Neither author has read Ehrlich’s new book, “Turn This Car Around,” but they said’s story about the book and interview with Ehrlich confirmed their analysis.

They note that Ehrlich’s failure to win re-election was not just a result of a divisive governing style but of an insurmountable surge in Democratic registration, and a drop off in Republican turnout which had reached record highs in his 2002 election. The state’s urbanizing jurisdictions have become increasingly Democratic, but the other counties have become more Republican and conservative, and are all areas Ehrlich won.

Governors’ popularity goes down

They make an interesting observation as they summarize their treatment of the governors.
“There have been, and there are now, signs that the strong office of governor is not always appreciated,” they write. “The other branches and levels of government, as well as the general public, exhibit occasional unease over the power and performance of Maryland governors,” noting the spending mandates the legislature has passed to force the governor to fund its priorities.

“Every governor in the past half-century has left office at the end of his term or terms with less public support than he enjoyed at the beginning or midpoint of his tenure in office,” they note.

In their view, O’Malley is not the tax-and-spend tyrant the GOP paints, but a pragmatic compromiser.

“The annual public debate over taxation and spending in Maryland is spirited and often contentious, even if rhetorically distorted and exaggerated,” they write. “Independent evaluations of Maryland’s tax structure generally rate the state far more favorably than do state residents and some political actors.”

“Consistent with the relatively high income and wealth of its residents, the state ranks high on measures using per capita income and significantly lower using a percentage of personal income.”

The authors have obviously strong Democratic leanings. But their commitment to fact-based analysis, extensive attribution of sources – though perhaps a bit too reliant on the Baltimore Sun as the newspaper of record – and their comprehensive treatment of Maryland’s body politic from head to toe makes their book a valuable resource for journalists, analysts and political activists trying to understand what goes on in Annapolis.

About The Author

Len Lazarick

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. Gome17

    Actually I believe this book fails to mention the 2010 GOP victory in County elections. It reminds me of a online group saying Democrats make gains in Montgomery in 2010 but in reality nothing changed. Willis do you deny that in 2010 the Republicans had 30,000 more voters that resulted in 9 counties out of 15 held by Republicans that it is totally controlled by Republicans.

    • Len Lazarick

      It means Maryland taxes per person rank high, but as a percentage of personal income they are lower than the percentages taken by other states.

  2. Anonymous

    After viewing the video & reading this article, one can conclude that these professors live within the bubble of progressive academia.While these august teachers conclude that the fastest growing group of voters are Independents, they still cling to the assumption that we enjoy the proactive, progressive policies of a one party dominated state government. Yes, we enjoy the pressures this administration has placed upon the backs of the middle class of all colors especially when we are gerrymandered into oblivion with no voice at the table.  What is the MD identity in politics?  Unfriendly to the average working man with drastically increasing taxes, higher fees, tolls, and a penchant for demonizing those with a different opinion. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Rather than fight “the man”those looking for a less taxed & regimented life are moving out ASAP.

  3. Anonymous

    While the authors evidently conclude O’Malley is not the tax-and-spend “tyrant,”  he is a prime candidate for a description as a tax-and-spend “progressive ideologue.” The Administration has been feasting on federal grants from the current progressive administration, which hopefully will
    be … if not wholly terminated by a New Administration, at least cut to a tiny trickle, no more than proportionally commensurate with Maryland’s contribution to the Federal coffers. Our Maryland administration, as demonstrated by recent reports on Agency spending, has been allowing moneys to fall from its pockets to the detriment of state coffers.

    As for debate over our Maryland administration’s spending and taxation … in my opinion, that it is abundantly clear the administration has no appreciation of the rapidly increasing crises (and most particularly the $15 Trillion in debt) at the National level and the ramifications at the State level. This State’s Administration, if not wholly, substantially ignores the impact of its thirst for additional revenues on the private sector, that part of its tax base it  has to ultimately count on to fuel the State’s economy. Would that we have responsible adults running the State and a Voter base that takes the time needed to adequately research and selflessly evaluate available candidates and the effect they will have on our future, if elected!

  4. Anonymous

    So, Professor Willis “architected” the 2002 gerrymandering and then complains about political polarization in Maryland? I don’t know what to say. That is just sad. I live in one of those gerrymandered congressional districts. There is no way my congressman can represent the patchwork geography well even if he worked a lot harder at it. Thanks for nothing John Willis.

    • Jwillis

      No,read chapters three, thirteen and fourteen. See e.g., pages 61-62,289-290, and 301-308.

      • Art_Letters

        Jwillis — Sorry, I don’t have the book. What did you mean by “no.”  Are you saying that the reporters made a mistake?


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